When Michael Cimino’s 3-hour-and-39-minute epic was screened in New York in November 1980, United Artists’ managers blanched, the critics brandished their pens, and Cimino hastened to explain that the film had been edited with undue speed to meet a release deadline.
No doubt about it, his two-year obsession, his beloved vision of the 19th-century West, was a bomb—a shocking debacle for a hot director who’d managed to keep even the studio from seeing it until the last minute.
The film is “something quite rare in movies these days,” wrote Vincent Canby, “an unqualified disaster.” And the inimitable Pauline Kael described it as a “woozy, morose mixture of visual virtuosity, overarching ambition, and slovenly writing,” adding that “it’s a movie you want to deface; you want to draw mustaches on it.
This monumental embarrassment to United Artists caused many film companies to take a hard look at the megabucks they were pouring into moviemaking with such enthusiasm. Other recent biggies included Star Trek at $40 million (one of the few that earned out and then some), The Blues Brothers at $36 million, and Apocalypse Now at $32 million. Heaven’s Gate, it was estimated, would have to gross $140 million just to break even. The big studios suddenly wondered whether the time had come to curb their zealous directors, be they divinely inspired or merely self-indulgent.
The screenplay for Cimino’s epic about a range war between cattlemen and immigrant farmers in the 1880s had been kicking around for about ten years. One studio president who rejected it called it a “a good yarn if you wanted to make a western” (which no one really did), while elsewhere it was criticized for its lack of humor, pace, and clarity. But then The Deer Hunter won Cimino the 1978 Oscar for best director and he became Hollywood’s boy wonder overnight. The new management at United Artists decided to take on the project, which Cimino at one point claimed could be completed for under $8 million. The contract signed in the spring of 1979 allotted him $11.6 million.
That summer Michael Cimino, Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, producer Joann Carelli, and over 100 technicians and craftsmen packed up their belongings and headed for the sleepy town of Kalispell, Montana.
From there the obsessive director launched his dream, with his mania for authenticity the sole beacon, the guiding force, the green light to spend—and keep on spending. The main street of Wallace, Idaho, was turned into boomtown Casper, Wyoming, of 1892; a fictional town of Sweetwater was erected in Glacier National Park; sets were built on the Blackfoot Indian reservation at the Canadian border and in the Flathead National Forest. More extravagant still was a 100-foot-long, 42-foot-wide skating rink built in Kalispell, complete with a huge woodburning stove that caused temperatures inside to soar to 100° and necessitated packing the cameras in ice. Two hundred fifty extras practiced on old-fashioned skates for six months—all for a skating sequence in the film of a few minutes.
“Every article of clothing, every structure, every sign,” asserted Cimino, “is based on a photograph of the period.” A 19th-century locomotive from Denver had to, be rerouted all over the West because it was too big to go through most tunnels. Cimino himself combed this country and many others before finding a hat maker in Philadelphia who could make top hats to his satisfaction.
He used 80 wagon teams and, as one crew member remarked, he “interviewed 300 horses for this movie.” Twelve hundred actors and extras attended classes in bullwhipping, wagon driving, waltzing, and horseback riding, while one of France’s most prominent young actresses, Isabelle Huppert, went to a bordello in Idaho for three days to learn her role from the pros. Hoping to safeguard his brainchild from the label of western, Cimino added a brief epilogue on a yacht, which cost $300,000, and a lavish prologue featuring an 1870 Harvard graduation with hundreds of students waltzing on the lawn, brass bands, and boys in top hats rushing through the streets. (Ironically, Cimino’s insistence on the real lapsed when it came to the plot, which deviates considerably from the historical facts.)
Cimino insisted that each scene be shot 20 or 30 times where most directors would settle for 4 or 5. Kris Kristofferson had to wield a bullwhip before the cameramen over 50 times. Cimino reportedly threw a party when he surpassed the film footage of Apocalypse Now, reaching an incredible 1.5 million feet.
He spent 156 shooting days, thousands of man-hours, millions of dollars. The townspeople of Kalispell soon caught on that movie crews from Hollywood have bucks to spare, and theirs was a captive market. In negotiating for land use, for instance, producer Carelli told American Film: “After we made the deals, before production started, every landowner changed his mind. ‘You can’t use my land,’ he’d say, ‘unless you give me another $50,000.’ What choice did we have? In some cases we did try to find new locations, and that would take more money, too. It was like holdup time without a gun.”
If the powers that be at United Artists had a glimmering of the extent of Cimino’s extravaganza, they hesitated to intervene. They were in too deep, and what would a subjective film grounded in a personal vision be without the one who envisioned it? So in 1980 the film had a brief stint before the public eye (which was stunned and amused), then was recalled, reedited, and re-released in 1981, at which, point critics still called it “murky” and “inhuman.”
With interest payments, advertising, and reediting costs on top of the initial estimated $36 million in production expenses, total costs hovered around $40 million, perhaps higher, a memorable catastrophe in the history of show biz.